Gelah Penn: Uneasy Terms at 

by John Mendelsohn

Uneasy Terms by Gelah Penn at Undercurrent
Gelah Penn, Notes on Clarissa, installation view detail

Art is a form of telepathy, a download from mind to mind. It moves through an imperfect medium, whose noise may be the signal, and whose significance is encoded deep within the image. Beyond the drama of emotion or thrill of sensuality, finally it is a consciousness that shines through to us.

The individual works in the exhibition can be variously described as sculptures, collages, and drawings. There are pieces from the Stele series, wall reliefs whose vertical orientation suggests upright figural presences. The two large installations, Prologue and Notes on Clarissa (Volume 1) are made of smaller pieces that together constitute walls of work, unscrolling progressively as we walk along them.

Gelah Penn, Stele #9, installation view

Stele #9 has a long spine of yellow lenticular plastic and a vaguely cruciform arm of red film. The entire off-kilter structure is clothed in polyester mesh, and delicately touched by a swarm of black pigment, giving it an attitude of ramshackle insouciance. Similarly cross-like is Stele #8, whose vertical member of vellum is backed by bedraggled black plastic that falls onto the floor, and a solar plexus of found circular metal.

Prologue is a 33-foot-long installation that runs the length of the gallery’s entry stairway. The work moves in step-like fashion, with a compendium of Penn’s favored motifs, materials, and palette of black, white, gray, with accents of intense color, all connected by horizontal linear elements. Layered and affixed to the wall are Mylar,  mosquito netting, garbage bag plastic, and found objects. The effect is a of a long, drawn-out echo of the solid architecture, with an array of derelict structures linked by ephemeral connections.

Gelah Penn, Prologue, installation view

Notes on Clarissa (Volume 1) is a wall of collages of 99 small collages that combine photographic exhibition cards with lightweight synthetic materials that partially obscure the original images. The work is a meditation on 18th-century novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, with the individual collages recalling the letters that constitute the novel. Their shard-like appearance and anxious affect suggests psychological facets of the story of a young woman’s seduction and betrayal.

This project exemplifies the sense in Penn’s art that through its myriad qualities we are encountering a consciousness at work, puzzling itself out. The work is made of fragments, with the concomitant impulse to make something cohere from them. To use Robert Smithson’s phrase, the pieces “rise into ruin”, as scraps from life are salvaged and given a new life, but retain a feeling of the abject and the vulnerable. A feeling of punkish, wayward survival is conjured in the comingling of translucent veils, tattered plastic, and off-the-shelf glamour of reflective film. And pervasively, the cryptic, constructivist abstraction that presents itself without artifice keeps hidden in plain sight its uneasy heart.

Gelah Penn, Notes on Clarissa, full installation view

70 John Street, Brooklyn, NY, February 13 – March 14, 2020